A good deal of outrage has rightly been directed at Ubisoft in the past week over its crafty reviews policy on Assassin's Creed Unity. But this has served to partly obscure the real problem: that the game is not very good.
The question needs to be asked: Why didn't Ubisoft delay Unity in order to fix its problems and get it just right?
Ubisoft certainly understands how easily a highly regarded brand can fall out of favor, if consumers get the sense that the series is past its best. Just take a look at the likes of Sonic, Guitar Hero and Medal of Honor. The shine that attaches itself to all brands can be tarnished by over-iteration and poor-quality releases.
Likewise, it is inconceivable to me that Ubisoft released Unity unaware of the game's shortcomings and its probable reception. Surely, large game publishers cannot be ignorant of the intrinsic qualities and headline failures of their own products, by the time they are completed.
Unity's review average on Metacritic is 73 percent on Xbox One and 76 percent on PlayStation 4 which, while hardly a disastrous score, is definitely outside the realm of "you should buy this product." Last year's Black Flag was in the mid-to-high 80s, as was Assassin's Creed 3. Assassin's Creed 2 broke into the 90s. This trend starts to look like a franchise in decline.
Ubisoft had so much to gain by delivering a sparkling iteration on a much-loved franchise. New consoles are on the rise. Assassin's Creed has a very good reputation among the demographics likely to be buying or receiving consoles this holiday. And Ubi has a clear run at the blockbuster historical fiction action sector which, to its great credit, the company has carved out pretty much on its own.
There is also an emotional angle here. Ubisoft is a French company, a family company that is proud of its heritage. I remember, some years ago, attending a Ubisoft press junket at a glorious chateau in Brittany, hosted by members of the Guillemot family. It was a statement of intent, that a company born in rural France would some day threaten U.S. giants like Electronic Arts and Activision.
While so many other European game publishers have fallen away, or been subsumed by American and Asian interests, Ubi has become a global power, with dozens of studios around the world.
So, here is Assassin's Creed, its gilt-edged primary brand, a game about big moments in history, finally tackling the period that, from a French perspective (and possibly from any Eurocentric perspective), must be counted as the Big One: the French Revolution.
There is a definite emotional attachment to this game, right from the top. "I was surprised how realistic it could be," said Ubisoft boss Yves Guillemot earlier this year. "From the street names to how it was before compared to how it is now, you are really more into the details when it is your own city."
It really ought to have been the series' crowning achievement, the game that sealed Assassin's Creed's reputation as a blockbuster brand. That has not happened.
I believe that, if Ubisoft were a private company, its leaders would have delayed Unity in order to give it time to be perfected, to iron out some of the overloaded systems and silly bugs that have made it a laughingstock this past week, through widely disseminated memes and jokes.
Sure, there are patches, but they will not fix the game's deeper problems. In any case, reputation is hard won and easily lost. Patches will not reverse the damage that has been done from poor reviews, memes and word-of-mouth.
Ubisoft is not a private company. It is on the hook to its shareholders. Sales for the first half of this financial year came in at around $600 million, up 65 percent compared with the previous year. However, the company's guidance for the whole year is $1.7 billion, which calls for a hot holiday season.
Earlier this year, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said that "our performance in the first half of the fiscal year has strengthened our confidence that we will reach our annual targets."
Assassin's Creed is an immense part of that ask. In May, Ubisoft revealed it had shipped 11 million copies of Black Flag, including digital sales. The year before, Assassin's Creed 3 had managed over 13 million at the same point. That's a very big chunk of the company's target, especially when you consider that other games like Far Cry 4 probably won't get above 6 million sales.
It is clear that Assassin's Creed is the brand that Ubi sees as bringing home the bacon now, while others are being lined up for future growth. "I think the one that is generating the more revenue is Assassin's Creed," Guillemot said earlier this year, when asked which of the company's franchises are the most valuable. "The two that we feel can generate more, that can bring more customers are Watch Dogs and The Division, I think." It's interesting that Ubisoft did feel able to significantly delay both those new franchise games.
Ubisoft has made a commitment to its owners to turn Assassin's Creed into an annual franchise. "We will be able to release our franchises more and more regularly, providing solid visibility on our future revenue and profitability streams," said Guillemot.
Ubisoft was faced with releasing a game that is not as good as it should be, but did not have the power to delay its release without taking a significant financial hit, one that would have damaged its reputation with investors. Plus, an Assassin's Creed movie is coming out in 2015. A delay might also have had repercussions in Hollywood. Delaying the game would have also had a knock-on effect to other Assassin's Creed games due out in 2015.
Ubisoft has made this trap for itself, by ramping up development to guarantee a new game every year. It is not the first company to do so. Call of Duty was going through a bad slump, until this year's offering (from a fresh developer) pulled it back from serious decline.
Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush, believes Ubisoft can survive a sloppy game because it faces so little competition in historical games. "This is one of those games that has extraordinarily passionate fans who are willing to overlook a lot, and the game has very little direct competition," he told Polygon. "I think a sloppy NBA game [from EA] allowed Take-Two to take share, and a sloppy Call of Duty game allowed Battlefield to take share, but I don't really see a threat to Assassin's Creed, unless the patch doesn't fix things."
He said that a delay on Assassin's Creed would cost Ubisoft too much money. "It's always better for the experience to delay games, but some annual franchises are too important to shareholders to allow a delay. EA canceled Need for Speed for a year to re-work the game, but that is a small part of their revenues. Assassin's Creed is probably a third of Ubisoft's revenues, so they couldn't afford a delay."
I emailed a Ubisoft represent to ask if a delay had been considered, but did not receive a reply. It seems probable to me that even if Ubisoft understood the game was not as good as it should be, it was simply unable to do the right thing, delay the game and make sure its subject and its players were given the justice they deserve.